The Natrona County school board unanimously approved a revamped bullying policy Monday night while taking an early look at formalizing how much it publicly discloses about “staff and student incidents,” eight months after the school district drew criticism for how it handled bullying allegations at Kelly Walsh High.
The work on both policies sprang from that incident, which district officials then characterized as “extreme bullying” but two sources described as waterboarding of a younger student by Kelly Walsh wrestlers. Board member Dana Howie said Monday the board was broadly looking at its bullying processes already, but she acknowledged the Kelly Walsh incident accelerated the board’s work.
The new bullying policy provides a broader definition of what constitutes bullying, intimidation and harassment. It all specifies that the policy applies to incidents that happen at school; administrators had previously told the board they were often confused about when they should become involved, as social media can blur the lines about when incidents begin and end. It strikes language specifically prohibiting sexting and hazing, though Howie said the new policy would still cover both.
In January, as the Star-Tribune reported the Kelly Walsh allegations, the district’s board, attorney, spokeswoman and administrators repeatedly declined to comment on any aspect of the incident, from the school to the age of the students to the date it occurred. They cited student privacy, though the district’s private attorney would later provide many of those details in a letter to the newspaper.
Howie said Monday night that her inability to comment in January “frustrated me from the get go.” Other district officials have expressed similar feelings.
“It wasn’t our idea not to say anything,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time in this district. ... Not having our voice in it doesn’t help anybody.”
She said she wanted the district — both its elected board members and its hired administrators — to be able to “say as much as we can without violating any laws.”
She mentioned the recent incident in Riverton, where three Riverton High School wrestlers were expelled for an attack on a bus in which they held down younger students and touched them inappropriately. Three wrestlers were later arrested and pleaded guilty to unlawful contact. (District officials have not named the wrestlers who were expelled.)
The Riverton bus attack happened on Jan. 4, the day after the incident at Kelly Walsh. Howie said Fremont County School District No. 25 — which covers Riverton — handled the incident well: Superintendent Terry Snyder spoke to media and continued to throughout the process but stopped short of identifying students or providing specifics.
In a presentation to the board Monday, district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland highlighted Riverton officials’ response to the allegations as a positive example.
Southerland recommended the board release several pieces of information when “applicable” after an incident occurs: the location of the incident; the type of incident; those affected; the potential consequences; any other agencies, like law enforcement, who may be involved; and the group involved, like an athletic team.
Southerland stressed that her recommendations are drafts and have not been run by the district’s private attorney.
In any case, the board was receptive. Trustee Dave Applegate said the work was an “excellent start” and “something we want to move forward with.” Board member Toni Billings said the proposal gave the district the ability to share “facts” about alleged incidents while “protecting kids and our families.” Board chairwoman Rita Walsh called Southerland’s draft policy “beneficial” and “valuable.”
Trustee Debbie McCullar asked Dale Bohren, the Star-Tribune’s publisher who attended the meeting, what his thoughts were. Bohren, who oversaw the newspaper during the waterboarding reporting, praised the school board for considering the policy.
“If you don’t have your voice in it, that’s a major part,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate what you’re doing, and I think it’s going to serve you very well.”
The policy is still far from finished. The board’s policy committee, headed by Howie, will continue to examine the policy after the district’s attorney looks at it. After that, it will be need to be read twice at public board meetings before finally being voted on by the entirety of the board. Howie indicated the board will seek more media feedback, as well.
Gov. Matt Mead and Wyoming’s congressional delegation on Tuesday criticized a federal judge’s decision to return the grizzly bear’s status as a “threatened species,” with some calling for Congress to revise the Endangered Species Act.
A major development in a decade-long saga that has since devolved into a dialogue over states’ rights to regulate their own wildlife, Monday’s decision by a federal district court judge in Montana reverses a 2017 rule from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service ending decades of protections for Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act.
“I am disappointed with yesterday’s decision,” Mead said in a statement. “Grizzly bear recovery should be viewed as a conservation success story. Due to Wyoming’s investment of approximately $50 million for recovery and management, grizzly bears have exceeded every scientifically established recovery criteria in the GYE since 2003.”
State Treasurer Mark Gordon, who is running on the Republican ticket for Governor, also released a statement, saying he was “disappointed that activist litigation has succeeded in superseding the diligent work of Wyoming biologists, wildlife experts and local stakeholders in developing a conservative policy to keep the population of grizzlies healthy and reduce human conflicts.”
Activist groups celebrated the decision as a major victory in what is anticipated to be a long fight against rollbacks made to the Endangered Species Act under the Trump administration. The Humane Society of the United States, which has led the charge and filed the initial lawsuits in this case, said that delisting was a “rush to judgment, driven by political pressure from hunting and ranching interests, that trumped the best available science and the opinion of many non-agency biologists who opposed this premature delisting.”
“Today’s win is an important one, and it is an encouraging reminder of what can be achieved in the fight for all animals,” wrote Kitty Block, the group’s acting president and CEO.
This decision to de-list the bears was made in alignment with the National Park Service’s stance that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had effectively reached its capacity for the bears, the population growing from 136 in 1975 — when the bear was first listed on the endangered list — to roughly 690 today, a level the NPS said would necessitate “efforts to reduce conflicts with people and preserve habitat for dispersal and, eventually, connectivity with other populations outside of the GYE.”
“Biologists correctly determined grizzly bears no longer needed ESA protections,” added Mead. “The decision to return grizzly bears to the list of threatened and endangered species is further evidence that the ESA is not working as its drafters intended. Congress should modernize the ESA so we can celebrate successes and focus our efforts on species in need.”
Delisting would not affect the management of bears within the parks, only those that strayed outside of the park’s borders. The management of those bears would then fall to the purview of the states. However, Monday’s ruling ends any hope for this year’s planned grizzly hunt that included 23 licenses (only 22 bears would have been killed, but there technically were 23 licenses available).
But the delisting of the species had another purpose: allowing states to control a sustainable population to reduce the risk of conflict with humans. According to the NPS, “reducing conflicts with people is the key to grizzly conservation,” and that “when bears kill people or damage property, bears lose.”
“Wildlife experts and federal officials have agreed that the grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region have been fully recovered for years,” Enzi said in a statement. “It is disappointing that the state of Wyoming and U.S. Fish and Wildlife services have once again seen their well-researched attempts to delist a recovered species struck down by a federal judge. As the grizzly bear population has increased in Wyoming, so has the danger to livestock, property and humans. That is why it was so important that management of the species be in the hands of the state. I hope that a quick resolution to keep the Yellowstone grizzly bears delisted can be implemented.”
On Tuesday, a member of Wyoming’s congressional delegation made an effort to do just that, as Liz Cheney — Wyoming’s lone House representative and a member of the natural resource subcommittee on federal lands — introduced a bill called the Grizzly Bear State Management Act, directing the Department of the Interior to reissue its decision while prohibiting further judicial review of this decision.
The text of the bill was not available on the House website as of Tuesday night.
In his ruling, the judge noted the case was “not about the ethics of hunting,” but whether federal officials had adequately considered threats to the species’ long-term recovery, adding that at one point, an estimated 50,000 bears once roamed the continent. He also noted that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was an exception to the rule of the bear’s recovery because grizzly populations have not bounced back in other parts of the country.
The ruling also looked at the genetic health of the population of grizzlies, and whether or not enough study had been done in that regard to ensure the long-term vitality of the grizzlies.
Wyoming’s junior Senator, John Barrasso, disagreed with this assessment.
“This judge’s decision is wrong and unsupported by the facts,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Yet again, the courts are replacing science-based recovery measures with personal political preference. The grizzly is recovered in Wyoming. Period. Even the Obama administration determined that the grizzly should be delisted. The state has a strong, science-based plan in place for the management of the bear. That plan should have a chance to demonstrate its success.”
The debate around Yellowstone’s grizzlies has swirled for some time: the bears were first delisted in 2007, only for protections to be reinstated two years later by a federal judge after finding that Fish and Wildlife Services did not adequately consider the impacts of the decline of whitebark pine nuts – a grizzly bear food source. Four years later, researchers found the tree’s decline did not significantly affect grizzly bears, which eventually led to the 2017 delisting and the states beginning to incorporate their own plans for bear population management.
Wyoming, a press release from Mead’s office noted, has adopted its own Grizzly Bear Management Plan — drafted in May 2016 — that stated regulated hunting “is not only a pragmatic and cost effective tool for managing populations at desired levels; it also generates public support, ownership of the resource, and funding for conservation as well as greater tolerance for some species such as large predators that may cause safety concerns and come in conflict with certain human uses.”
“This is unfortunate,” Scott Talbott, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in a statement. “Game and Fish is a strong proponent of all wildlife management being led by people who live in this state and having management decisions made at the local level. We will do our part to ensure the shift back to federal management will be seamless, just as we did in 2009 when grizzly bears were returned to the endangered species list after having been under state management for just over a year.”
Arizona Democrat and congressional candidate David Brill made national and international headlines this past weekend with a campaign advertisement that featured his opponent’s siblings endorsing him.
Filmed in Wyoming, it attracted a lot of good attention for the challenger in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. House Rep. Paul Gosar. However, it may have attracted the wrong attention for one party – the University of Wyoming.
The school is now “looking into” whether or not a campaign ad that ran in Arizona violated the school’s film policy, a spokesman for the university confirmed.
The advertisement, paid for by Brill’s campaign committee, prominently featured the stands of the University of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium in the background, which appears to be in direct violation of the campus’ media policy.
According to UWyo’s film policy, university “buildings, statuary, or landmarks may not be used in any commercial advertisement in a way that suggests the University’s involvement with, or support, promotion, or endorsement of any product, service, or political party or candidate without the written approval of the Vice President for Administration.”
The university also requires anyone filming on campus to go through an application process and, if approved, it costs between $600 and $1,200 a day to film for commercial purposes. The Brill campaign did not, at any point, ask the university for permission to film on university grounds, Chad Baldwin, a spokesman for the school, told the Star-Tribune.
The university did not mention any specific course of action it could take.